Still playing with the box

Special to The Times

AT first glance, it looks like a mix-up on the docks of San Pedro. Eight shipping containers -- those orange-, green- and rust-colored boxes that truckers haul on L.A. freeways -- sit stacked two high at different angles on a lot in Redondo Beach. The steel containers, now painted white, have windows, door openings and some entire sides cut out. But there's no disguising their cargo-carrying heritage.

They make up different wings of a contemporary-style house that will have a 20-foot-high living room and two walls of airplane-hangar doors that will open completely to the outdoors.

"We wanted something different." says Anna Pirkl, a 34-year-old artist, who is building the house with her husband, Sven, 37. "We wanted something contemporary and modern. But it was getting more and more expensive to do what we wanted to do."

The structure is eye-catching in its oddity, a standout in a suburban neighborhood of single-story tract houses and recently remodeled two-story homes. By using containers for much of their house, the Pirkls say they are saving a bundle.

Dozens of architects have explored using the strong, weatherproof, steel containers to create inexpensive, environmentally responsible housing. Container-based dwellings have been an option for at least a decade, and have turned up as youth hostels in South Africa, field hospitals in Jamaica, art studios in London and dormitories in Amsterdam.

In the United States, a handful of completed projects include a few highly original container-based residences in New Jersey and New England by Adam Kalkin, an off-beat architect and performance artist. In architecturally adventurous Southern California, Jennifer Siegal designed the SeaTrain House in an industrial area of downtown L.A. using containers as part of the structure.

For Anna and Sven, the container idea started as a joke.

ABOUT eight years ago, the couple saw a lot for sale but they only had money to buy the lot.

"So I joked with Sven," says Anna, " 'We should just go down to Long Beach, grab a couple of those shipping containers, weld 'em together, put in a few windows' ... I was just kidding. With building prices the way they were -- and are -- we just couldn't find a way to build the house we wanted."

After they acquired the Redondo Beach property, she checked prefab houses on the Web. "I contacted all kinds of metal companies, to see if they wanted to do something new and cool on our lot. But nothing was really clicking."

Then the couple was introduced to Manhattan Beach architect Peter DeMaria, unaware that he too had been interested in containers.

"We didn't mention anything about containers," Anna says, "but we told him we wanted to be as environmentally sound as possible, to do any recycling we could. We wanted our house to be low maintenance. We wanted it to be as creative as possible. And it had to fit our budget."

Early in the architect's pitch a couple of weeks later, the Pirkls figured out that he was suggesting containers. "And we said, 'Fine.'

"I think Peter was a little disappointed that we said yes so fast -- he'd worked hard to create this great, elaborate show, and he didn't even get to finish it."

"Beyond using the containers," says the irrepressible Anna, "we have a number of things we're doing inside the house that are going to be a lot of fun. Like this," she says, pointing to an interior side wall of the 20-foot-high living room where there will be a climbing wall.

"Sven and I are sports fanatics. We're going to put a zip line --a tight steel cable -- down a hallway, so you can reach up, grab the handles, and ride to the next room. We'll probably also put in some swings, some gymnastic rings. Those are the kinds of things we like to do. We figured, why wait 'til you go to the gym or go off on a weekend or a vacation to do that sort of thing?"

"THERE are certain expected activities that take place in a standard house," says architect DeMaria. "But this house is a more interactive experience than any other I've been involved with. The house enables Anna and Sven to do the things that are unique to them: hang on that zip line, climb that wall, ride their mountain bikes up the front ramp and through the wide-open living room, in one side and out the other.

"Stylistically, we had no preconceived view of what the building should look like," DeMaria says. "We knew we wanted it to function for them. We started to arrange things to support what they wanted to do. I'd like to think that the building reflects them, and the way they like to live ... At one point we were going to put a half-pipe in the back yard."

Four of the largest containers sit perpendicular to the street above a concrete garage, two stacked on the right, two on the left. The lower boxes will serve as hallways and open-air porches, the upper one on the left will be the master bath and walk-in closet, the one on the upper right will house a library-guestroom.

In between is a two-story frame structure, which will contain Anna's art studio on the first floor and the master bedroom above. Four smaller, 20-foot containers, joined to the rear of the right-side front containers, will house the kitchen and utility room on the first floor and two guest rooms on the second. Behind the kitchen is the living room, a 20-foot-high, steel girder and wood frame cube. All of the containers came from Florida where they were specifically modified for the Pirkls' project.

"I wanted to feel as if I was outside," says Anna, "especially in the living room, where I was going to spend most of my hours." The architect originally planned to use roll-up garage doors there, so the whole house merges with the environment.

"The living room would become our entire backyard," says Anna. "Then he found these airplane-hangar doors, which fold out instead of rolling up. And they're actually better, because you still get the light coming in from the windows above the doors, and if it rains, we can keep them open -- because when they're folded up, they extend out to form a kind of awning."

WHEN all the bills are totaled, the Pirkls hope to complete their, 3,500-square-foot, four-bedroom, 3 1/2 -bath home for $125 a square foot -- half of the $250-$270 average for custom building in the area.

DeMaria, his associate, Christian Kienapfel, and the Pirkls concentrated on reducing cost without reducing content. Using the containers for over half of the house's structure yielded major savings. The container sections will have no internal or external sheathing. Anna and Sven decided they liked the look of the painted, corrugated container walls just the way they are, even with their original dents.

Insulation is provided by an innovative, NASA-developed ceramic coating, a little thicker than a credit card, sprayed on the interior and the exterior surfaces.

As in many South Bay homes, their house will not have air conditioning. To reduce maintenance to a minimum, durable, automotive-style acrylic paint has been sprayed over the insulation. The Pirkls see no reason to cover the original, industrial-strength wooden container floors. Electrical fixtures and conduit run unadorned throughout the house, with most electrical outlets built into the container floors.

"Over and over again," says DeMaria, "we're taking materials from other industries, reinterpreting or reapplying them to this scenario, and we come up with a reinvigorated thing, something with a fresh feeling to it.

"Those hangar doors work better for what the Pirkls wanted to do. And they're also much less expensive than residential doors. It's hard to get a door that's 20 feet wide and 18 feet tall. That door's normally going to cost $35,000. We're doing two of them here, for a quarter of the price."

The main stairway to the second floor will be enclosed in a translucent box of lightweight acrylic panels, usually found in greenhouses. Precisely finished, formaldehyde-free plywood will be used to form internal walls and partitions, and to lend some warmth to counteract the industrial look of the containers' walls. Prefabricated concrete-board sheets will sheath the climbing wall, saving labor and maintenance costs.

THE Pirkls had hoped to be living in their new house by now, but delays in obtaining permits and in construction have pushed their move-in date to mid-August.

With their previous house already sold, the Pirkls need a place to store their furniture and belongings. The solution is simple --and one fully in keeping with the philosophy of reusing industrial castoffs to create innovative, entertaining forms.

One more used, 40-foot container has been delivered to the backyard to shelter their possessions until the house is done. They will then dig a hole in the yard, cut the top off the container, drop the container into the hole, and fill it with water. Voila: an instant lap pool.

Sven and Anna's housewarming party is likely to be a memorable affair. Guests will be advised to dress casually. To wear their bathing suits. And to bring their climbing shoes.

Dexter Ford can be reached at home@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Smoothing out the box

Using recycled shipping containers may be a less expensive and environmentally responsible way to build a house but it requires plenty of research and expertise. Here are some things to consider.

The basics: You can buy a container measuring 40 feet long, 8 feet wide and 9 1/2 feet tall and have it delivered to a building site for as little as $2,000 (www.containeroutlet.com). The walls and roof are made of corrugated steel; the floors are thick marine plywood over steel (the wood often is mahogany or other exotic hardwood, depending on where the container is built).

The construction: Though containers are strong and essentially weatherproof, they are more complicated to use for housing than traditional frame structures. Local building-and-safety departments generally are not familiar with container building and may ask for results of engineering tests before approving. For more information on container-based design in California, go to www.demariadesign.com.

The aesthetic challenge: Though the interior and exterior walls can be covered with conventional materials -- wood, concrete board or stucco on the outside, drywall or paneling on the inside -- extra materials and labor inevitably erode the savings in using containers. At www.fabprefab.com, there's an entire section, called containerbay, devoted to container-based architecture.

-- Dexter Ford

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